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My father doesn’t like the word spiritual. He calls it a “whoo whoo” word and thinks it’s often used to mask deep irrationality, pride, and un-Christlikeness. He has a point. The Corinthians described themselves as “spiritual,” and they were a hot mess.
In the long history of the church, people have often appropriated the argot of spirituality as a means of distinguishing themselves from and then demeaning other Christians. First Corinthians 2:14-16, along with 3:1, has provided many with their lexicon of spiritual distinction.
The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment:
“For who has known the mind of the Lord
that he may instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ (2:14-16).
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly… (3:1).
In these four verses, Paul uses three crucial words: psychikos, pneumatikos, and sarkinois. The NIV translates these terms as “man without the Spirit,” “spiritual man,” and “worldly [people].” The ESV, somewhat more literally, translates them as “natural person,” “spiritual person,” and “people of the flesh.” We’ll refer to them as psychics, pneumatics, and sarkics.
Psychics—in my special use of the word, not the palm-reading, crystal ball-gazing use—are people who have rejected the gospel. Paul makes three statements about them. They (1) don’t accept the gospel because (2) it seems foolish and (3) is therefore incomprehensible to them. This is a perfect description of “the rulers of this age” who “crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).
Pneumatics are people who, under the influence of the Spirit of God, have believed in the message of the cross of Jesus Christ and are therefore being saved by the power of God. They “know the mind of the Lord” because the Holy Spirit has given them “the mind of Christ.”
Sarkics are pneumatics who act like psychics but are too dense to admit that they’ve backslidden.
The Corinthians considered themselves pneumatics. They delighted in spiritual gifts, among other things, and they ran roughshod over one another to exercise those spiritual gifts. Moreover, they combined their so-called spirituality with their so-called wisdom and downplayed the centrality of the cross of Christ, which was embarrassing to them. I’m not sure whether the distinction between pneumatics, psychics, and sarkics is Paul’s or the Corinthians, but I’m quite sure that the distinction accurately captured the Corinthian mood. They rated themselves better than others.
That’s why Paul’s words must’ve shocked them completely. They weren’t spiritual. They weren’t even soulish, which is an excessively literal translation of psychikos. (In Greek, psyche is the word for “soul.”) They were fleshly (sarkinois)—the farthest thing from spiritual as could be imagined.
True pneumatics live at the foot of the cross, accepting the salvation it offers and living the life it models.